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San Francisco International Film Festival 2009

Has the collective growl in the belly of a world in crisis finally made it to movie theaters?

San Francisco International Film Festival 2009
Photo: San Francisco International Film Festival

Everything Strange and New was the title of one of the films playing at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival, though it could as easily describe the feeling of rummaging through the festival’s 200-film package of features, shorts, documentaries, and revivals. Yet Everything was emblematic of the event in other ways as well. Playing like a purposefully numb, avant-garde transmutation of an Alan Ball suburban-anomie drama, Frazer Bradshaw’s portrait of a spiritually bereft family embodied the combination of narrative and experimentalism that marked SFIFF 2009, as well as its overriding sense of global despair. Alienation is not a rare motif at film festivals, yet the sheer number and diversity of pictures from all corners of the world dealing with some kind of turmoil in the soul this year deserves its own case study. This was, after all, a festival where a double-bill of restored torment-fests from Antonioni and Cassavetes could qualify as light viewing. Has the collective growl in the belly of a world in crisis finally made it to movie theaters?

Before entertaining such queries, however, things started off on a more affirmative note with La Mission, Peter Bratt’s chronicle of the clash between gayness and machismo within San Francisco’s Latino community. Though clearly picked for the opening slot for its pleasing-the-locals elements (anti-homophobe speeches, shots of the Mission District), it’s nevertheless a commendably serious, naturalistic look into a worthy subject, with Benjamin Bratt earnest and muscular as the aging lowrider challenged by the discovery of a queer son. Additional sweetening was provided by Easy Virtue, Stephen Elliott’s miscast, antic filming of Noel Coward’s drawing-room comedy; the increasingly obnoxious frat-house push-pull of Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna in Carlos Cuarón’s Rudo y Cursi; and the dreary granola version of Monsters vs. Aliens that is Battle for Terra. The search for lightness extended to Marc Webb’s rom-com (500) Days of Summer, which snatched the festival’s coveted Centerpiece slot; I missed it, and perhaps thankfully, if a fellow critic’s description of it (“This year’s Little Miss Juno”) is anything to go by. I instead finally realize my dream of watching Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West on the big screen—unspooling majestically in a beautifully restored new print (thank you, Mr. Scorsese), it more than ever resembled nothing so much as Visconti’s The Leopard in cowboy drag.

But back to cine-miseries. Atom Egoyan’s Adoration struck me as less impressive than I remembered from last year in Toronto, though its network of distressing characters was useful in laying out the festival’s recurring theme: Children fending for themselves in a world that’s at best indifferent, at worst nightmarish. That’s the kind of world inhabited by the young heroines of Catherine Breillat, who in Bluebeard finally offers the wicked fairy tale she’s been promising for years. Whisked away from the insularity of a convent by their father’s death, two preteen sisters (Lola Creton, Daphné Baiwir) become aspiring brides as corpulent, hirsute Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) searches for a new wife. Creton is chosen, and moves in with the self-described “disappointed old wolf”; their marriage proceeds with hilariously deadpan smoothness until the ogre hands the maiden the key to the mysterious room downstairs. There are horrors, as befits a fable of a girl coming of age in a castle with a grisly secret chamber, but this is Breillat’s most severe yet most childlike picture, a feeling reinforced by a framing ploy that posits the whole medieval ordeal as a yarn spun by a mischievous little girl to alarm her sensitive, older sister. The final image is a stunner, both mercilessly deconstructive and perversely enchanted.

Yim Pil-Sung’s Hansel & Gretel proposes a fairy-tale update of its own, transplanting the Brothers Grimm chestnut to modern-day South Korea. Stranded in the woods after a car crash, a traveler finds himself surrounded by mounds of frosted candy and nursery-room wallpaper at the “House of Happy Children,” where a trio of cheerily bizarre kids reign supreme. Packed with severed doll’s heads, stuffed bunnies, and ominously shimmering lighting, it’s an often juicily macabre account of intergenerational traumas that continually asks: Who’s fattening whom for the kill? More conventional in style but equally volatile in emotions, Philippe Falardeau’s It’s Not Me, I Swear follows another prepubescent wanderer, a Quebecois 10-year-old (Antoine L’Écuyer) with a fondness for breaking into neighbors’ houses and enough Oedipal baggage to make him crawl obsessively in and out of tunnels. Predicated on the gentle but steady darkening of kid-comedy tropes (an intimation of abuse here, a suicide attempt there), the picture’s most intrepid aspect may be its young protagonist’s marked resemblance to Home Alone-era Macaulay Culkin. Lake Tahoe could have used some of its vigor. Fernando Eimbcke’s follow-up to Duck Season again works the “My Little Jim Jarmusch” kit of stone-faced blackouts with diminishing returns. As in the earlier film, a sense of loss permeates a lazy day in the life of aimless youngsters, but where Duck Season took its shape from the characters’ unconscious nostalgia for the passing moment, Lake Tahoe is mostly diffuse and tepidly quirky.

If the kids aren’t all right, the adults are positively fucked. Think of the spilled blood in Grace as the amniotic fluid linking the generations. A young mother (Jordan Ladd) wills her stillborn baby to life, but miracles aren’t free: The toddler’s need for “special food” literally makes breasts run red. More Little Shop of Horrors than Rosemary’s Baby, Paul Solet’s low-budget gorefest has some moments of queasy ingenuity, though its free-floating disgust mostly raises questions about male directors mining maternal anxiety for shallow horror. Class divides, rather than splattered viscera, bond child and adult in Versailles, Pierre Schöller’s Dardennian tour of the marginalized communes swept under the proverbial rug of France’s social structures. The surrogate parentage of a homeless man (the late Guillaume Depardieu, in one of his last roles) grudgingly playing guardian to an abandoned boy could have easily been milked dry for cheap sentiment, but Schöller paints it with unsentimental, battered tenderness, never forgetting the sobering idea of a shadow world of plastic-bag tents in the park next to the palace of the Sun King. A child is also at the center of Troubled Water, a Norwegian tale of atonement that alternates between the vantage points of an ex-con (Sverre Valheim Hagen) trying to start life anew and the mother (Trine Dyrholm) of the boy whose death he caused years earlier. Director Erik Poppe achieves some compelling moments, even if he has to contrive a melodramatic, water-soaked finale straight out of Griffith’s Way Down East to get them.

Considerably less serious, Javor Gardev’s Bulgarian neo-noir Ziftsuggests the conceptually intriguing but ultimately painful mating of Béla Tarr and Guy Ritchie. The setting is a monochromatic Eastern Bloc netherworld of misshapen pugs and fatales, the protagonist is a tattooed bullethead (Zahary Baharov), the MacGuffin is the loot from a diamond heist; images of castration, excrement, and anality abound for a deconstruction of macho aggression, but Gardev seems more interested in forcing his camera into cartwheels. The crackup of the male psyche is instead reserved for the main character in Laila’s Birthday, a former judicial employee (Mohamed Bakrin) struggling to make it home in time for his daughter’s birthday, and trying to hang on to his dignity while driving a taxi through occupied Palestine. Though it stays on the safe side of the volatile terrain, Rashid Masharawi’s seriocomic slow-burner throws in enough barbs to remind us that the same humorous plot could without much change also play as tragedy. Elsewhere, David Russo’s The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle wins this year’s Bad Richard Linklater Imitation trophy. There’s the germ of a satirical idea in the way it envisions vaguely rebellious but slacking young janitors as guinea pigs being fed experimental cookies by the corporate tastemakers (and any comedy that works in a reference to Duchamp’s Urinal must be up to something), yet the premise is quickly submerged under Dane Cook-style hijinks and misguided hallucinatory interludes.

On the documentary corner, the fallacy illustrated in James Toback’s superficially compelling but fatally shallow Tyson—that being familiar with your subject is akin to analyzing it—was also felt in several of the festival’s other entries. Christopher Felver’s Ferlinghetti is particularly guilty of it, maintaining a reverent distance from Beat poet and controversial City Lights Publishing founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Still, the legendary iconoclast (fondly tagged an “old-ass anarchist” by a fellow poet) is enough of a fascinating personality to keep surprising the camera. No such luck with North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong II, who was more interesting as a sputtering Team America: World Police marionette than as the dangerous dictator looming over the testimonies and propaganda snippets gathered in Kimjongilia. Interviews with refugees from North Korea’s “system of concentration camps” are valuable, yet their tales of personal repression are repeatedly blunted by director H.C. Heikin’s diagrammatic juxtapositions, which don’t illuminate the horror as much as underline the obvious. That’s why Avi Mograbi’s Z32 is so refreshing and startling; rather than covering up the difficulties of documentary representation, it turns them into its very subject. Using layers of digital “masks” to efface the identity of its subject (an Israeli soldier’s confession of his part in “eye-for-an-eye missions” in Palestinian villages), it offers itself as a live-action Waltz with Bashir, and is in a way more honest in its evocation of memory, remorse, and performance.

Other notable docs included Crude, Joe Berlinger’s tough-minded exposé of the eco-humanist costs of the Aguinda v. Chevron class action lawsuit; Gaël Métroz’s Nomad’s Land, an essayistic travelogue that recreates famed philosopher Nicola Bouvier’s trek from Yugoslavia to Sri Lanka; and For the Love of Movies, Gerald Peary’s snappy if skimpy timeline of American film criticism from nickelodeon pamphlets to the blogosphere. Unmade Beds, the sophomore feature by gifted Argentine director Alexis Dos Santos, brought up the rear with its loose, sensuous, and blessedly non-mumblecore view of twentysomethings weaving in and out of mercurial emotions. Coming at the very end of a festival marked by its visions of despair, Dos Santos’s amiable mix of whimsy and longing resembled the last-minute wink that so often tried to cover the dark abyss that had been opened up in Hitchcock’s films.

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 23—May 7.

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